To the End of the Earth: To the End of the Earth (30): Catching the Vision for Missions

Sermon by Derek Thomas on January 28, 2007

Acts 13:1-12

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

January 28,
2007

Acts 13:1-12

To the End
of the Earth

Catching the Vision for Missions

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Now turn with me to The Acts of the Apostles, and we begin
now at what is going to be the theme of the rest of The Acts of the Apostles:
the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul.

We are moving away now from Jerusalem and to
Antioch–Antioch in Syria–and from there we will be traveling westwards into the
Mediterranean Sea and to the island of Cyprus; and soon in a few weeks time we
will be in what is Asia Minor, and what is these days Europe. And it seems
appropriate. In God’s providence (these things are not planned with all that
much foresight, as to when these sermons actually fall), God is good to us, and
these just seem so very appropriate as we are coming into our Missions season,
and Missions Conference will be upon us shortly. Doug Kelly — Dr. Kelly — will
be here in a few weeks time. Do put that on your prayer calendar. Put a note on
the fridge door, and remember to pray for Dr. Kelly as he comes and delivers the
Mission addresses.

Now let’s read from Acts 13. We’re going to be
reading verses 1-12. But before we do so, let’s once again beseech the Holy
Spirit to grant us illumination. Let’s pray.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for the
Scriptures, the Bible. We bless You for this extraordinary, supernaturally given
book: every jot and tittle, the very word of God. We need Your help to
understand it and to apply it, and to do its commands, and to believe its
doctrines, and to draw comfort from its promises, and to fear its warnings. So
come, O Lord, this evening. Come, Holy Spirit, and shed a light upon our mind,
and wills, and consciences and affections, and draw us again to embrace the
truth and to do its bidding out of love for You, because You have first loved
us; and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now hear with me the word of God:

“Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets
and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene,
and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And while
they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart
for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when
they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.

“So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia
and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they reached Salamis, they began to
proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John
as their helper. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos,
they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was
with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned
Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician
(for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul
away from the faith. But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy
Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, and said, ‘You who are full of all deceit and
fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease
to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? Now behold, the hand of the Lord
is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time.’ And
immediately a mist and a darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking those
who would lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had
happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord.”

Amen. May God add His blessing to that reading of His holy
and inerrant word.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts for us the way in
which the ascended Christ marches across Europe. Having ascended up to heaven,
He pours forth His Holy Spirit and equips, and commissions, and sends out His
ambassadors to take the gospel from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the
end of the earth. These are the acts of the Holy Spirit. Three times, in fact,
in this section we read this evening, we read of Luke referring to the Holy
Spirit. These are the acts of the Holy Spirit, the acts of the risen, ascended
Christ; they are the acts of God fulfilling His word and purpose: that He
intends that the seed of the woman will crush the very head of Satan. And He
will build His church, the church of His dear Son, Jesus Christ, and the gates
of hell will not prevail against it. And we see a macrocosm — we see a big
picture of the purposes of God, of the decree of God being fulfilled before our
very eyes as we turn the pages of The Acts of the Apostles, and the church
expands forth into Europe.

But we also see, because Luke is a historian and
occasionally loves to focus on little details, a microcosm. And tonight we’ll
see that in the figure of Sergius Paulus, the proconsul, an official of the
Roman Empire on the island of Cyprus.

There is a crisis in the church in Antioch. What do
they do now? The church has grown and flown the coop, like your little ones who
grow up…and they’re teenagers, and off they go to college, and you’re home
alone. And the church has grown and spread, and is settled now in Antioch, and
Saul is back. After ten years in Tarsus, and he’s back. And from Jerusalem, Saul
and Barnabas and John Mark, as we read at the end of chapter 12, have made their
way up to Antioch.

Now, that would be fine and wonderful and pleasant,
if they settled there and lived happily ever after. What a wonderful church it
would be, the church of Antioch, with Saul and Barnabas and John Mark, and
others…a gifted church, a blessed church. The church knows that that’s not the
right thing to do. There’s more to do. There’s a kingdom of Christ’s to be
expanded. There are purposes of God yet to be fulfilled. The church is not to be
idle, but they need to seek the face of the Lord.

The gospel is never meant to be kept and preserved
like the crown jewels in the Tower of London. The gospel is to go forth, to
spread. And what you see here is this enormously influential church of Antioch.
It’s a bit like the church in Geneva, in the middle of the sixteenth century,
when John Calvin was its pastor. You may have thought that Calvinism breeds
stagnation as far as the gospel is concerned, but nothing could be further from
the truth. Nothing could be further from the truth, because it is those who have
seen the power and sovereignty of God who have been the most impelled to go into
all the world and preach the gospel.

In 1555, there was reputed to have been only five
underground churches in France. And in Geneva, in the official records in the
archives of Geneva, there are hundreds of letters to and from Calvin and others
to the underground church in France. In four years, by 1559, there are over 100
underground churches in France. In seven years, in 1562, there are over 2,150
underground churches in France. In seven years!

What we see in Antioch is a little microcosm of
that, and I want us to see three or four things this evening. I want us to see
first of all that missions expresses the very heart of God.

I. Missions expresses the very
heart of God.

This is Antioch in Syria. Don’t get confused about
the Antioch’s. There are lots of Antioch’s in the New Testament era, and we’ll
read another one next week — Pisidian Antioch…Antioch in Pisidia…this is
Antioch in Syria. And Antioch is the third largest strategic city in the Roman
Empire, after Rome and Alexandria in North Africa. It has this marvelous port
city close by of Seleucia, from which they will sail to Cyprus.

And the focus has shifted, because up until this
point the focus has been on a city and a person: the city is Jerusalem, and the
person is Peter. And all of a sudden it is no longer Jerusalem and Peter, it is
Antioch and Saul (or Paul). In Jerusalem, James (James the Lord’s brother) is
now the leader, the recognized leader of the church in the city of Jerusalem;
but within 15, 16, 17, 18 years from now, in the year 62 A.D., he will be
martyred. Not recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, but he will be killed at the
command of the Jewish high priest.

Peter will make his way to Antioch. We don’t read of
that either, in The Acts of the Apostles, but we do read about it in Paul’s
letter to the Galatians. We also read of Peter in the city of Corinth. And of
course we know that Peter will end up in Rome, where he will be martyred, along
with the Apostle Paul. But the focus now is no longer Jerusalem and Peter; it is
Antioch and Saul.

And the church are praying, and they’re fasting,
and they’re worshiping God, and they’re looking to God for direction.
And
the Holy Spirit speaks to them, probably through one of the prophets, and says
‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul…’ (Note the order, by the way. Not “Saul
and Barnabas”…that’s going to be in chapter 14, but as yet it’s “Barnabas and
Saul.”) …that they might be God’s instruments in fulfilling His purpose. And
they lay hands on them, and they send them away from the port city of Seleucia
to Cyprus–and there this man, this proconsul, Sergius Paulus, will be converted.

There will be opposition, the opposition of a man by
the name of Bar-Jesus, or, as Luke calls him, “Elymas,” meaning a sorcerer;
meaning a shaman figure of some kind. And this man Bar-Jesus is opposing the
gospel. In fact, he’s doing the very opposite of what God is doing. Luke quotes
Saul, and Saul seems to be referring to that well-known passage in Isaiah 40
about making a straight path, a highway for God–a reference, of course, to the
coming of John the Baptist, a text that is repeated in Matthew and Luke at the
coming of John the Baptist. Here is God, and God is making a highway, a straight
path, and this man Bar-Jesus is trying to turn Sergius Paulus away from that
highway to follow a crooked path. And it is as though Luke is saying this
opposition that comes from Bar-Jesus, it’s like an anti-Jesus figure…like an
antichrist figure. Here’s the gospel, but here is opposition. Here is light, and
here at the same time is darkness. But here, too, is this extraordinary hand of
God. It’s God the Holy Spirit that speaks to these men in Antioch. It’s God that
seems to open doors of opportunity. It’s God that puts down this Elymas figure,
blinding him. It’s the word of God that comes to the heart of Sergius Paulus. Do
you see? God is doing something here! Before we look at Saul or Barnabas, or the
five men that are mentioned in verse 1, we need to see the hand of God.

Paphos is on the extreme west side of Cyprus. (I
need to do a reverse image here…for you, it’s on this side.) Paphos is on the
extreme west side of Cyprus. It’s about 200 miles away from Antioch. There’s the
Mediterranean Sea in between, and it’s as though God is saying here in Antioch
there’s Saul and there’s Barnabas, and way over there across the ocean in a
little island in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea, there’s this man, Sergius
Paulus; and God wants him. God wants to draw him to Himself, and He’s making a
straight path. The sea is no obstacle to Him. The fact that this is on a
different land mass to Antioch…it’s no problem to God. The fact that Paphos’s
Elymas the sorcerer, who is trying to disturb the work of the gospel, it’s no
problem to God. God is opening up a highway. It’s like one of these great big
machines, you know, that when they build these highways…these enormous
machines, you know, that just move everything in its path. Move earth and
stone…. There’s a program on TV–I sometimes watch it–about big structures, and
big buildings, and big machinery. And it has a physics and a mechanics all of
its own. It’s a fascinating thing. Well, you see a little bit of that here. God
is building a highway from Antioch all the way to Paphos and to the heart of
this man, Sergius Paulus.

Do you remember the sermon Spurgeon preached on
Romans 8?

“Those whom God has foreknown, He also did predestinate; and those whom He did
predestinate, He also called; and those whom He called, He also justified; and
those whom He justified, them He also glorified. What shall we then say to these
things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son,
but freely delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not along with Him also
freely give us all things? Who shall separate us from the love of God which is
in Christ Jesus our Lord?”

And you remember what Spurgeon called that sermon? “There’s
No Stopping This God.” Once He begins a work, there’s no stopping Him. And here
is God opening up a door, opening up a highway, because missions is at the very
heart of God.

My friends, if you don’t have a heart for missions,
you don’t have a heart for God. If you don’t have a heart for missions, you
don’t have a heart for the Holy Spirit. If you don’t have a heart for missions,
you don’t have a heart for Jesus Christ. Why do we keep talking about “the
mission-minded Christians” as though it’s possible to be a Christian and not be
mission-minded? Is it? Here is God’s beating heart for this man, Sergius Paulus,
this proconsul, and God wants him, and He’s opening up a door. Missions is at
the very heart of God.

II. Secondly, missions and
prayer, and missions and fasting.

Luke tells us that they were worshiping, in verse 2.
In verse 4, he says that they were praying or ministering together, and they
were also fasting. They were seeking the face of God. They needed guidance. They
needed direction. And because this was an extraordinary moment in the history of
the church needing divine guidance and direction, they spent time fasting.

The Bible says a whole lot about fasting. The
Bible says more about fasting than what is the Christian attitude of going to
the movies. I don’t have to debate what is the Christian/Bible view about
fasting: it’s clear. It’s on many, many passages and pages of the Scriptures.
There are partial fasts, like the one Daniel engages in, where he eats that
lentil soup thing in Babylon…you know, no meat. It’s a partial fast. And then
there’s an absolute fast. We read of one in Ezra 10. We read of Moses and Elijah
fasting absolutely for 40 days and 40 nights. I understand that there must have
been some supernatural intervention in those particular fasts; it would be
impossible to survive 40 days and 40 nights without supernatural intervention.

There are private fasts, of the kind that
Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount: that when you fast, you don’t
display your fasting before others. You don’t go round telling everybody that
you’re fasting, as though your spirituality was being paraded before the entire
body. No, do it in private, Jesus said.

But it doesn’t mean that you don’t fast. When
you fast, fast like this, Jesus is saying.

And then there are congregational fasts,
communal fasts; fasts when the whole body, the body of Christ, the church
collectively fasts. That’s what we’ve got here. They were fasting. Were they
abstaining from all food and drink? We don’t know. Was it just food, or was it
something else? It’s not just food that comes under the edict of fasting. But in
order that they might discern something of God’s will, in order that they might
get a clearer glimpse of what it is that God wants them to do, where they are to
go, what direction they are to seek, what priorities they are to set, they
abstain from certain laudable and legitimate things for the purposes of
concentrating upon the things of God, and reading His word, and listening to His
voice.

God expects us to occasionally engage in periods
of fasting, either privately or collectively.
And I think it’s no
exaggeration to say that fasting changes the face of history, because history
changes as a result of what they did in Antioch. As a result of sending Barnabas
and Saul to Cyprus and beyond, the face of history is changed. The face of the
church would change. The face of the Roman Empire would change. The face of the
world would change.

It’s the missing jewel in the evangelical church,
the face of fasting. In our age of ease and luxury, fasting seems to sound so
archaic and odd, and strange. And yet, I think for these Christians in Antioch
it seemed the very right thing to do. They needed to spend time with God, to
hear the voice of God speak to them and give them direction.

III. Missions was a concern for
the whole church.

And then, thirdly, I want us to see that missions
was a concern not just of the few, but of them all–of the whole church.

We’re given a glimpse of the few, some of the leaders, some of the prophets and
teachers. Were they all prophets and teachers? Or were some prophets and some
teachers? I don’t know. I have no idea. Can’t work it out. My guess is they were
a bit of both. They were all prophets and teachers.

Barnabas–we’ve seen Barnabas already. Barnabas,
whose real name is Joseph…they call him Barnabas…it’s a nickname. It means
son of encouragement. We’ve seen him as he brings Saul of Tarsus to
Jerusalem that very first time. We’ve seen him as he is sent as the delegate
from Jerusalem to Antioch to investigate Gentile inclusion in the church. We’ve
seen him as he goes off to Tarsus to find Saul and bring him back to Antioch and
Jerusalem. Every church should have a Barnabas with a great heart, a heart that
beat for the things of God and a personality that went with it.

And then Simeon, or Niger, an African. Probably a
black African. There’s a conjecture that he might be Simon of Cyrene who carried
the cross of Jesus, and whose sons were Rufus and Alexander. No great evidence
to support that, but there’s this nagging tradition that says he’s Simon of
Cyrene.

And then Lucius of Cyrene, from Libya–North Africa,
again. Then there’s a…slightly less dominant… but there is this tradition
that says that Lucius of Cyrene is none other than Luke himself. Very little, if
none, evidence, by the way, to support that.

And then this man by the name of Manaen. Luke calls
him a syntrophus, meaning a companion; meaning someone who was raised in
the same house as Herod. This is not the Herod who died in the previous chapter.
This is the Herod before that, the Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.
The Herod Antipas whom Jesus called a fox; the Herod of Jesus’ execution. That
Herod. Isn’t that extraordinary, by the way? That a man raised in Herod’s
household, Manaen, as a syntrophus, which is a pretty close
relationship–God has saved him. God has brought this man into the kingdom, and
he’s there in the church in Antioch.

And there are some other companions, and we know
that John Mark is there somewhere. At least he’s there in Cyprus, and he was
there in Jerusalem, and he went up with them to Antioch, so he’s probably there
in Antioch with them just now. And we’ve got these individuals…and yet the
whole church, it seems, were praying. And the whole church, it seems, were
fasting. The they in verse 2 — “While they were ministering to the
Lord and fasting…” Is the they a reference to the five? Or, as more
likely, to the whole church? And it’s the whole church that gathers and lays
hands on them and sends them forth and commends them to this work of mission.
It’s a corporate work. The whole church is involved. This is a mission-minded
church, because this church in Antioch has seen that missions is at the very
heart of Almighty God.

IV. Missions is about the
salvation of souls.

And there’s a fourth thing I want us to see here,
and that’s that missions is about the salvation of souls.
It’s about more
than the salvation of souls, but it is about the salvation of souls.

And Luke wants us to catch a glimpse of this
extraordinary conversion of a man named Sergius Paulus, a Roman official in
Cyprus, who is “shaken to the core” in J.B. Phillips’ translation of this
passage. Shaken to the core by what? By the teaching (verse 12) of the Lord. It
wasn’t the miracle so much of what happened to Elymas…certainly he had seen
that…but it was also the teaching of the Lord, the doctrines of grace, the
love of God for sinners, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the evidence of
what God had done in the lives of Barnabas and Saul, and John Mark and others,
and all of these things now had come home to him. And Luke says, “…and he
believed.” He believed! He turned from darkness to light. He embraced the truth.
He took Jesus as Lord and Savior. This proconsul….you know, Paul will say
elsewhere when he writes to the Corinthians that not many mighty are called; not
many noble…not many of noble birth are brought into the kingdom of God. But
this man was.

And what a wonderful blessing that must have been to
Barnabas and Saul at the beginning, at the onset of the missionary journey. They
have no idea what the future may hold for them, and right at the very start,
right at the very beginning, God gives this tremendous token of His mercy and
grace in the conversion of Sergius Paulus.

I want to challenge you with two things.

First of all, the importance of prayer…and
prayer and fasting.
Are you praying for our Missions Conference? Because, as
we heard this morning and as you’ve heard many, many times, we’re all involved
in missions. And at the most basic and fundamental level, we’re involved in the
ministry of prayer, upholding our brother and sister who are here tonight. Don’t
go to bed tonight before you’ve upheld them in prayer, praying that God would
equip them and surround them with His blessing, give to them a sense of His
presence, and enable them to continue in the face of much opposition and trial
and difficulty to be ambassadors for Jesus Christ in a dark, dark place. Because
that’s your responsibility. It may be your responsibility for some of you to go
on short-term mission trips, and it may be your responsibility to give up your
jobs and to go as missionaries. But it’s the responsibility of every single one
of us who name the name of Jesus Christ to uphold these men and women in our
prayers.

But here’s another thought. You understand what
the church at Antioch actually did?
They have these enormously talented
people: Saul of Tarsus, Barnabas. I don’t want Barnabas to leave my church! I
want to keep Barnabas in my church. And Antioch said, ‘We’ll send the best we
have.’ Doesn’t it seem to you like that? That the Holy Spirit said ‘Let me pick
out the two best ones there, the two most gifted ones there: Barnabas and Saul.
And I send them.’ And my friends, when you look at it like that, we haven’t
really begun the work of missions, have we? Are we sending…as the church, are
we sending the best that we have? I ask that of myself. Are we prepared to
forego the very best for the purposes of the advancement of the kingdom of God?

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You for this Your word as we
begin this journey that will occupy us in these coming weeks into Asia Minor, as
we see the gospel spread from shore to shore. We ask that You would write these
things upon our heart;, and help us to see things as You see things – to have
that divine perspective on the realities of this world. And hear us, we pray,
for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand; receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord
Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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